Last weekend we went to Cairo

When we booked the trip at Christmas, it didn’t seem so remarkable.

We would fly in for 36 hours; see the pyramids, the sphinx and antiquities. We would stay in a nice hotel overlooking the Nile. We planned to go to the bazaar and eat our body weight in hommos.

On January 25 that changed somewhat.

As the dates clicked closer to our intended departure family members implored us to not go.   We discovered we were stuck in travel insurance purgatory. Our policy wouldn’t cover us if we canceled. It also wouldn’t cover us if we went. 

It was the emails from our 25 year old guide Khaled that clinched our choice.

Dear Victoria
I hope this message finds you well.
I’m sending you this message to check the status of our tour on the 19th of February.
P.S Finally we were able to get our freedom in Egypt 🙂

Arriving in Cairo late on Friday night we find our transfer waiting to take us to the Fairmont Nile City. The airport is empty. The snarls of Cairo’s highways come with a chorus of beep, blurt and honk.

There are no discernible road rules.  It is a derby where every car, bike, cart and donkey is out for themselves. As we get closer to Tahrir Square we become ensnared in a tangled mess of traffic. There are people leaning out of car windows, waving flags. They are still yelling in jubilation. One week on from the toppling of their President, Friday is a day of celebration.

Past the sniffer dogs and metal detectors at Fairmont, sounds ricochet off the marble floors. There are no restaurants or bars open. Wandering around the upper levels the dark feels as if we’ve been locked in an upmarket shopping mall overnight.

On Saturday morning breakfast is served in the President’s Club and is pared back; some bread, cheese, pastries and fruit that has seen better days.  There is no money in the ATM at the hotel. We later find cash at the fourth machine we try. We take a minor amount and empty its coffers.

Khaled has agreed to take us around for the day. He collects us in a van bolstered by portable wifi and he shows us the route to the pyramids on his ipad.

Khaled, our guide

It is easy to see the way technology has powered the changes of recent weeks. Cell phones are the primary mode of communication among the young.  Rarely is the ipad out of Khaled’s clutches and facebook is his first port of call. Khaled tells us he has little faith in other media.

The pyramids are deserted. They greet us as three craggy prisms, and there are no other tourists to clog our frames. Clamoring across the dust and up inside the first pyramid the air is warm and heavy. We make our way up alone and the only sounds in the burial chamber in the centre are our own claustrophobic breathing.

At the sphinx there are youngsters hawking wooden replicas and cascading piles of post cards.

The only other presence there is a journalist from a German radio station, who interviews us, wanting to know why in heavens we have come.

We stop for lunch at a kosharey. It’s while mixing a deep bowl of spiced lentils, chickpeas, rice and noodles with a tomato puree and fried onions that  Khaled tells us a little more of his experience  of the weeks past.

He tells us he will no longer do business with the horsemen who give tours around the pyramids. He believes they made up the paid thugs who stormed the crowds at Tahrir.

He was not at Tahrir on the first day violence erupted. He had gone home for a brief rest. One of his friends had not. He died.

He says the hardest part was remaining peaceful in the face of brutality. Those who hoped for freedom did not flinch when shots were fired. Nor when they released all the criminals from prison. He says that those actions only made their resolve stronger.

Khaled, like so many others we met is looking forward others coming to see Egypt reborn.  At the Khan El Khalili markets the first thing we see is a gathering of workers, chanting their desire for visitors to return.

After we buy freshly pressed sugar cane juices, which we drink from a plastic bag with a straw,  there are  a requests  in English from a neighboring stall.  ‘Let me take your money!’  they say with a laugh.

That  night, at Sequoia on the island of Zamalek there is an infectious enthusiasm in the crowd. Most are young, in jeans and smoking mint and lemon flavoured shisha.  We sit under the white canopied roof, on low chairs and tables.

There is a sound track of Coldplay, house music and collective exuberance. We eat plates of mezze; babaghanoug, hommos and tehina with puffed pitas as pliable as down. In front of us is a 270 degree view of the Nile.  In the bathrooms I meet two young women from Toronto who have just returned to their family’s home Cairo. I ask them why. They say they felt like they had to be here at this time.

On Sunday morning we battle the crowds along the river towards the reopened Egyptian museum. The volunteer chain of humans that looped around the landmark during the protests have saved the gross majority of antiquities for future generations.  Along the way we see tanks and tangles of barbed wire, like tumbleweed.

Children are having Egyptian flags painted on their cheeks. There are elderly women ambling in the sunshine and  young men with their arms linked returning from the  clean up efforts.

The largest crowds are in front of the state television tower. They are calmly disputing the barricading of the television station and the roads around the square.

The front  of the salmon hued museum is guarded by the army. Before they will let us in, they ask for our passports. We have not brought ours. We move away dejected. It has taken us over an hour to walk here and we don’t have time before our flight to go collect them and return. An older man in uniform sees my disappointment. He asks to see my husband’s drivers license, gently lifts the barricades and lets us in. ‘Welcome to Cairo’ he says.

Inside the museum there are mainly locals strolling around nodding,  taking stock of what is still here. There are workers gently dusting the relics some are running their hands over the marble and limestone sculptures, almost in relief.

Afterwards we walk some more. We eat falafel and pita standing up at Felfela. The crust of the falafel crackles and the inside is pistachio green.  For £2, we’re full.

Walking back towards the hotel we get lost. It’s only when we reach the river again I check our progress against map. “Did we just walk through Tahrir square?” I check with my husband. “We told the family we wouldn’t go there”.  “Yes” he says. I didn’t even notice.

Over our two days in Cairo, the most nerve racking thing we experienced was crossing the road. To cross over here is an exercise in faith.   To make it we step together,  calmly charge across, hoping and praying that death won’t glance our way. On the other side of the chaos, we breath a sigh of relief and keep walking.

Just like the people of Cairo, we were just trying to get to the other side. Once we got there we found a sense of adrenalin and excitement that was very hard to shake.

Cairo Tours by Khaled El Samman

Fairmont Nile City
Nile City Towers – 2005 B, Corniche El Nil | Ramlet Beaulac

3 Abou Feda St, Zamelek

15 Sharia Hoda Shaarawi Street

  1. Heartbreaking and heartening in equal measures. I'm not sure what I would have done in your situation – actually I'm glad you are braver that I probably would have been.

  2. The food sounds wonderful, brave you.

  3. Wow, what an unusual circumstance to see Cairo. You are very brave to have gone, I would have probably opted out. Glad to hear that you're safe and sound!

  4. Tori – This is such an amazing post. Very brave/crazy of you to go to Cairo but I think Egyptians need more people like you visiting.

  5. All I can say is "wow!". It's not often one can say they have been to
    a country and witnessed the birth of a new era. That's pretty special.
    I was so engrossed that I missed my stop on my tube ride home lol! I
    get the impression there is an air of optimism although I imagine it's
    going to take a little while for daily life to return to full swing.
    Lolli's always been keen to visit Egypt – maybe the current lack of
    visitors is an attractive prospect…

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